In 1983, when I opened Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, one of the first brewpubs in the United States (in Hayward across the bay from San Francisco), I had only the barest inkling of the renaissance that was about to take place. Some 20 years later, with brewpubs and micro breweries thriving all around the world, I elected to sell my brewery, and take a long-desired trip around the United States. True, I needed a vacation, but more than that, I wanted to visit the numerous craft distillers with whom I had become familiar as a brewer and publisher. The trip took four months and I covered over 12,000 miles visiting every distillery I could find. When I returned to California, I was convinced that a second renaissance was about to occur, only this time it would be in craft distilling. My conviction got the best of me, and I founded The American Distilling Institute.

My first task, as I saw it, was to construct a “real” list of U.S. distilleries. I put quotes around “real” because the available data was not only sketchy, but due to decades of combating intolerance, rather secretive. Today, the American Distilling Institute database contains 664 e-mail addresses of distilleries, VIPs, vendors, and spirits journalists. Included are 65 pot distillers, 13 whiskey distillers (12 in Kentucky), and four “corporate rectifiers” producing alcohol for consumption. Interestingly, about half of the 65 small licensed distilleries in the U.S.A, are owned by wineries, and the make everything from brandies to eaux-de-vie, and even whiskey. Four distilling companies have both winery and brewing licenses. One company (Bardenay) in Idaho is the first to operate two distillery restaurants. And recently I learned there’s a distillery restaurant in Finland. Imagine bringing friends to a restaurant and drinking a gin or vodka that had been distilled on the premises? Fun!

And fun is what it’s really all about. With the momentum gathered from my US tour, ADI held its first “Making Whiskey” conference in 2004. The generous host was Jorg Rupf of St. George Spirits. Not knowing whether we’d fall flat on our faces or stand tall, we were overwhelmed by the response. Undeterred, we sallied forth a second time with “Making Whiskey 2005.” Thanks to Ted Huber, and all the others who contributed so generously, we have now entered the history books with all the bells and whistles and flags flying. And what have we learned, if not this: the distilling renaissance is not only happening, it’s here!

My hope is that DISTILLER will become the eyes, and ears, and voice of this most spirited group of visionaries.

Bill Owens

Bill can be reached at